Politics & Policy

Can Philadelphia’s ‘Johnny Doc’ Put His Brother on the Supreme Court?

Kevin Dougherty campaign ad (via YouTube)
Judicial elections the Philly way.

As Ken Rocks ran for the executive board of Philadelphia’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 last fall, one of its powerful bosses, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, mailed a letter to the thousands of electricians in the union attacking the candidate.

No love was lost between the two; Rocks ran his campaign for the union’s executive board largely on claims that Johnny Doc’s ethics and management had been lacking. In turn, in his letter, Johnny Doc listed various legal charges filed against Rocks, also claiming he was “behind $1000’s” on his child support and had stopped sending money. Bumper stickers, reportedly also issued by Johnny Doc, made a similar claim: “ROCKS DID NOT PAY FOR HIS KIDS.”

Far from being simple union bickering, Johnny Doc’s letter has implications for Pennsylvania’s upcoming high-stakes Supreme Court race, with the primary occurring today. Johnny Doc’s brother, Kevin Dougherty, is a front-runner among the 12 candidates vying for three open seats. Two Republicans and two Democrats currently sit on the court, meaning the election will determine which way the bench slants.

RELATED: Livin’ Large on the Union Payroll: Some Philadelphia Bosses Are Really Raking It In

As it turns out, information about child support or delinquent payments isn’t publicly available; in fact, a clerk at the Philadelphia Family Court tells National Review it can be obtained only with explicit permission from a lawyer involved, or by court order from a judge.

Rocks questioned whether Kevin Dougherty — who served as administrative judge of the Philadelphia Family Court from 2005 to late 2014 — may have had access to that information and may have wrongfully released it to his brother, according to a confidential request for investigation submitted by Rocks to the Judicial Conduct Board and obtained by National Review.

“I have recently acquired the transcripts from a Local 98 Trial Board where John Dougherty referenced his brother numerous times,” Rocks wrote. “This made me suspect that his brother or his staff was involved in releasing this confidential information.” Adding that he was “reluctant to make this complaint out of fear of reprisal in the Family Court System,” Rocks wrote that he did not feel he’d been treated fairly, “and I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not.”

The Judicial Conduct Board said it could neither confirm nor deny whether it was investigating Dougherty, adding that it does not discuss the outcome of inquiries. But in a March 18 letter to Rocks obtained by National Review, the Board confirmed receipt of Rocks’s complaint and confirmed that, apparently as a matter of practice, “this office will conduct an inquiry into the matters you have reported.”

Rocks declined National Review’s request for a comment. Kevin Dougherty did not respond to our phone and e-mail requests for comment, and Local 98 and its spokesman also did not answer e-mails seeking comment or an interview with Johnny Doc.

Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer last month, Dougherty said: “My brother has never influenced me on the bench or in any decisions I’ve made as a judge. After 15 years, I have earned the reputation of Judge Kevin Dougherty.”

News of the complaint against Dougherty comes amid concerns that Johnny Doc is trying to buy his brother a Supreme Court seat in a race that’s on track to be the most expensive in state history.

Already, candidates have spent nearly $1.5 million on advertising, reports the Patriot-News, a central Pennsylvania newspaper. And they’ve raised roughly twice as much, according to April tallies by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thus far, Dougherty has led the fund-raising, collecting more than $700,000. Johnny Doc’s Local 98 has contributed more than $185,000 through its political-action committee, with other locals across the state also chipping in; altogether, Dougherty has raised more than $303,000 from Pennsylvania electrical unions.

Across the board, the high levels of campaign spending raises concerns, says Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit court-reform organization.

Campaign contributions aren’t the only connections between Dougherty and his brother’s union.

“Even if there’s not an actual conflict of interest, there’s the issue of whether there’s a perception that somehow, contributors will get special treatment in court,” Marks says, speaking generally about the Supreme Court race. “That perception is very important and troubling, because our system of justice is based on impartiality and people standing equal before the law.” Unlike candidates for executive or legislative positions, she says, “judges are supposed to make impartial decisions based on the facts and the law, not what they said on the campaign trail or what the contributors want.”

Campaign contributions aren’t the only connections between Dougherty and his brother’s union.

Dougherty has paid Daniel Ceisler $4,000 a month for political consulting. Ceisler lists himself as Dougherty’s deputy campaign manager on his LinkedIn page, which also notes that from April 2012 to March 2013, he served as Local 98’s political aide. There, Ceisler says, he “assisted the Business Manager in securing contracts.” Department of Labor filings list Johnny Doc as the business manager for Local 98 in 2012 and 2013.

Dougherty has also spent a significant amount of campaign funds at Strassheim Graphic Design, which describes itself as a “100% union company specializing in commercial, union, and political graphic design.” Dougherty’s Cycle 1 campaign report showed he had spent more than $27,000 there; filings for Cycle 2 listed an additional $5,268.92 expenditure, also listing more than $45,000 in unpaid debt from Dougherty’s campaign to Strassheim Graphic Design.

Rachel Strassheim, listed as president for Strassheim Graphic Design and Press in corporate filings, serves on a board of directors for a scholarship fund alongside Johnny Doc.

Meanwhile, Strassheim Graphic Design has long been among the biggest recipients of Local 98 political-action committee money. Between 2003 and 2013 alone, FEC filings show, the committee disbursed money to the print shop 325 times, totaling around $694,000. The union’s description for many of these transactions: “propaganda.”

One of the most significant campaign spenders in the state, Local 98’s PAC has come under scrutiny before. In 2014, National Review reported that hundreds of thousands of dollars from Local 98’s PAC and from candidates supported by the union had ended up at a restaurant owned by the union’s leadership. Though such transactions aren’t necessarily illegal, they resemble a self-pay scheme.

Johnny Doc’s support may well backfire for Judge Dougherty, given Pennsylvanians’ thirst for ethical judges. Already, one of the Supreme Court seats up for grabs came open after a judge was convicted of corruption; another became available after a judge’s resignation, which followed revelations that he’d sent more than 200 e-mails that included pornographic and sexually explicit conduct. Given the possibilities for conflicts of interest, as well as the concerns outlined in Rocks’s complaint, Dougherty owes voters further explanation.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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